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Plan for Ga. 400 toll lanes revived
DOT looking at possible projects
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Forsyth County News

For about five years, Tom Schnautz has made the trek down Ga. 400 from his home in Forsyth County to work in Atlanta.

It takes him about 45 minutes, but only because he leaves before 6 a.m.

“If I leave any later than that, it’s an exponential growth in traffic, and for that reason, I never go in late,” he said. “I just won’t do it.”

Schnautz said he would be willing to pay as much as $5 a day to commute in a toll lane.

Such a concept could be accelerated if the state Department of Transportation gets approval on its latest public private partnership program, dubbed P3.

With its current budget woes, the DOT can’t afford to tackle large projects, said department spokesman David Spear.

But pitching a project to private companies and investors is mutually beneficial. The state gets road congestion relief without tapping state money and the tolls give private investors a return on their investment.

“With private sector funding, then we can advance these things in a much quicker order,” Spear said. “We think there will be a considerable amount of interest.”

The department hopes to start soliciting bids as soon as summer 2010, possibly breaking ground before 2012, Spear said.  

This is not the first time the state has looked at combining private funds and investors with public transportation. The concept has been allowed since 2003, with revisions over the years.

The original legislation allowed the state to accept unsolicited bids, meaning private firms selected projects they wanted.

Spear said the Transforming Transportation Investment Act, which passed last legislative session, changed that. The new bill “streamlined it ... that we only pursue those projects that the department wants to pursue.”

Among the first 18 projects the department is considering are toll lanes along a 21-mile stretch of Ga. 400 in Forsyth and northern Fulton counties.

But before Ga. 400 or the other projects are put out for a bid, the state legislature and DOT must approve rules for the program.

District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton, who serves on the House transportation committee, said he is reviewing the complex rules.

His main concern, he said, is making sure the guidelines support building roads faster and within budget.

“Hopefully, next year we will have moved forward and have some specific programs identified and in the process,” he said.

The Ga. 400 proposal makes the most sense to the Cumming Republican. Continuing to offer free lanes but also giving alternatives for those willing to pay could ease commutes, he said.

The P3 initiative, he said, is a good start in building crucial transportation infrastructure.

Schnautz hopes for relief, though his morning commute will still begin before sunrise.

“There’s lots of discussion and everyone knows 400 is a problem spot,” he said. “... But until someone puts it in a budget or signs a contract with somebody to even do a private toll lane, it’s just talk.”